IF you were to meet him, you would find Michael Gove a charming and impeccably polite man. His careful way with words. His clear intelligence. His self-effacing – yes, true – and slightly bumbling manner. His natty way of dressing and his smart haircut.
Such is his bombastic public profile, it’s easy to forget that the former Secretary of State for Education is also a constituency MP, for Surrey Heath. Thousands of people voted for him and you can see how he impressed the local Tory grandees. No doubt he’s the kind of chap they wouldn’t mind for a son-in-law.
I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe Mr Gove close up. I first met him at Oxford University, where he was President of the Union and loathed by some who branded him “Tory Boy”.
He graduated from Lady Margaret Hall the year before I left, with the same 2:1 degree in English. He’s just three months older than me. We’re both children of the Sixties, both from modest backgrounds – he’s the adopted son of an Aberdeen fishmonger – and the first in our family to go to university. We’re also both outspoken, to a fault.
Our paths crossed again at The Times newspaper in the late 1990s, when we were ambitious young execs. It’s probably fair to say that despite the similarities, we had our differences. He was talked of as being a frontrunner for future editor. There was much jostling for position with other ambitious young execs. Some days it made Westminster look like playgroup.
Sitting opposite him day after day, I began to realise that this man’s ambitions went further than the editor’s chair, so it was no surprise to me when he entered politics. I’d been to his soirées, where he served mini shepherd’s pies and champagne, like Jeffrey Archer, and where the likes of Nick Boles and Ed Vaizey plotted their takeover of the world. And, if I’m honest, it’s no surprise that given the post of Secretary of State for Education after the 2010 General Election, it seemed to go to his head.
And now he is gone. To the Chief Whip’s office, with a substantial pay cut and approbation ringing in his ears. However it’s dressed up, it’s a demotion. If I know Michael, he will be feeling absolutely gutted. I’m almost tempted to feel sorry for him. You see, there is much that is good about him. If you think about it, he’s a perfect role model for our children.
He got where he got through hard work and aspiration. He had the courage to move away from his roots and took his chance, first at Oxford, then in London. His self-confidence carried him from TV researcher to biographer of Michael Portillo. He married well, to Sarah Vine, a columnist for the Daily Mail, and had two children, contemporaries of my own son and daughter.
The problem is, no one stopped him. No one reined him in as he set out with reforming zeal. If reports are true, he surrounded himself with yes men and henchmen who believed the hype and the ideology. In the first flush of coalition government, he got away with murder. Bringing down the axe on the Building Schools for the Future programme should have rung a warning bell. Someone should have said – “hold on a minute...”
No one did though, he had the ear of the Prime Minister and spent weekends at Chequers with his family. He was tipped as a future leader himself, and I thought to myself, “here we go again”. And then I watched from the sidelines as he systematically destroyed the education system in this country. I listened, at every parents’ evening, to the frustration and yes, anguish, of teachers who felt bullied and humiliated. And I read about what he proposed to do to the history and English curriculum and fretted over my son’s SATs tests and thought to myself, how could this man, this father-of-two, be so callous and brutal and unsympathetic?
And that’s why I am glad that he will no longer be in charge of my children’s education. What sane parent would want a man who had been slapped 22 million (and counting) times on Twitter running the show? You might think this is a silly social media fad, but it tells its own story.
That’s not to say I want a pussy cat as Education Secretary, far from it. I want someone who stands up to the powerful teaching unions and makes sure Ofsted is doing its job. However, I also want a politician who remembers that politics might be important, but people come first.
I have no idea how his successor, Nicky Morgan, will do in the job. I suspect she is nothing more than a caretaker to take us through to the General Election. Or a “fembot”, as my friend who is a deputy principal at an academy says, with the scathing weariness her profession has adopted as its default position.
Whatever she is, though, she won’t be remembered like Michael Gove.